Mind Over Matter
Review of Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness by Tim Parks
Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness
by Tim Parks
New York Review Books, 2019
A “physicalist,” in the parlance of our times, is a thinker who claims that everything that exists—garden hoses, garden snakes, igneous rock, the color red, the number two, and my feelings about the plays of Chekhov—can be reduced without explanatory loss to the world described by physics. To physicalists, the mind itself juts out like the last redoubt of mystery, that beast without whose killing the scientistic world-picture cannot live, and accordingly they train their sights on the “problem of consciousness,” which asks how the physical world “gives rise” to mind—assuming that it actually does. At stake here is nothing less than the nature of the human being and, only a few yards downstream, the nature of art, work, religion, politics, and every other heading in the Dewey Decimal System. The problem of consciousness enfolds every conceivable intellectual dispute into its bud. It seems simultaneously to be the most recondite and the most relevant possible question.
Onto this battlefield steps Tim Parks—novelist, essayist, reluctant meditator, and the very model of a secular European intellectual. In 2015, the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut sent him to a conference in Heidelberg, where he interviewed scientists and philosophers about these matters. Out of My Head: On the Trail of Consciousness is the result, and, happily, it doesn’t simply pile another snowflake onto the journalistic pop-science avalanche threatening to crush us with cheap, planetarium-style “wonder.” The book is slyer, more interesting than that, and a sortie not into science or metaphysics (except unsuccessfully) but into rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Parks has used the problem of consciousness as an occasion to prolong and vary a theme in his work: the interfusion of the intellectual life with the emotional one. With unassuming narrative skill, Parks has written an at times self-mocking inquiry into why we hold the particular beliefs we do.
So why do we? Analyzing a belief into the premises it rests on is possible, though rarely practicable. For example: I believe the sun will set this evening. I believe this because I also believe that my experience of thousands of sunsets in the past was not illusory and also because I believe that the heavenly bodies tend to repeat themselves. But when I ask myself why I believe these deeper beliefs, I feel suddenly bewildered and dizzy. I could keep seeking lower and lower premises, but I sense this would place me in the position of that Looney Tunes character who keeps snatching disguises off his enemy only to find another one beneath it. Analysis like this leads on to premises, but those premises themselves are still unfounded by analysis. “[Y]ou can never prove your first statement,” Chesterton told us, “or else it would not be your first.” Keeping this difficulty in mind, Alfred North Whitehead called this search for premises the proper goal of philosophy. But this search can never proceed through the sort of dry analysis that wants so desperately to assume the shape of a mathematical proof: I need another means entirely to select my embarkation point for thinking.
But the reader may have discerned already that almost nobody gets their beliefs by seeking sound premises and building toward necessary conclusions. For every belief acquired this way, a million others come to us not as verbal propositions at all but as quasi-conscious habits of mind acquired like an accent. And, as it is with accents, we absorbed these beliefs from a particular milieu, in course of learning how to get along in that milieu. Not syllogism but socialization convinced us of the better part of our beliefs, which soon turned as habitual as our gait, as our laugh, as our belief that space has three dimensions. Belief is bound to action. Pascal advised those lacking faith to act as though they did believe, to take holy water and go to mass. And, on the debit side of the ledger, Upton Sinclair noted that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
This “other means,” then, this sui generis mode of intellectual flight by which we soar to premises, is likely rooted in our society with other human beings. And from this principle professional thinkers aren’t exempt: their analytic skills may have the forbidding intricacy of a NASA command module, but they still took the unproven premises of their thought from the common trough of life experience. Out of My Head is a lengthy illustration of how we are socialized into the premises of our thought.
The majority of writers suggest with heavy hints that their motives for writing are a dedication to truth and a desire to rain blessings on the species. Admirably, Parks admits other, less admirable motives. First, Parks wants to evade embarrassment, as we all do when not in a Dostoevskyan mood. Parks mourns when forced to abandon a “process” theory of consciousness because it “sounded credible and respectable. Process is not a word you need feel ashamed of.” Apropos of interviewing neuroscientists, Parks says he is “afraid of seeming stupid again,” a statement very different from, “I am afraid of embracing a falsehood.” Even when relating his daily Buddhist affirmation (“May all creatures be happy,” etc.), Parks adds, “It is a little embarrassing to admit that I repeat this formula every day.” The embarrassment inherent to Buddhist lovingkindness he declines to spell out, but embarrassment is clearly in the psychological saddle.
Another Parks motive is his simultaneous dread of and attraction to figures of authority. Respected institutions in particular fascinate and repel him. One theory of consciousness appeals to him because “I won’t be needing a priest or neuroscientist to tell me what is what.” (A revealing pairing.) But he still dreads the scent of unsophistication that may hang on him and his clothes in the wake of questions he puts to academics. It needs emphasis in bolded type that all writers feel much the same as Parks, who is exceptional only in his candor.
His entrée into the problem of consciousness is an encounter with a charismatic man. Parks, for years, had assumed that consciousness was “in” the brain and that accordingly a man who believes himself to be looking at the Taj Mahal is really looking only at an image of the Taj Mahal confined to his skull—some arrangement of the “little gray cells.” Parks considered this the default position. (Put aside the fact that common sense, contrary to pointy-headed scholarship, assumes that we do perceive the world and not its neural copy, making this the true “default” position.)
All is changed when Parks witnesses philosophy professor Riccardo Manzotti hold forth from the audience at an academic conference, preaching that “There are no images!”—which is to say, no images imprinted in the neurons, and no basis for saying that my consciousness of the tree is physically “in” my physical head. “Manzotti had a rather wild look to him,” writes Parks, “an explosion of tangled hair, the most intense blue eyes. And he was passionate, ironic, derisive.” Soon enough, Parks and Manzotti are friends and correspondents. Mephisto took Faust to a tavern; Manzotti takes Parks to a pizza parlor, where he continues to unspool his kerygma, scribbling on the back of a paper placemat. Manzotti asks Parks to consider the conscious experience of seeing an apple and to say where this experience must be physically located. (Like most physicalists, Manzotti is unduly fond of employing the visual perception of static objects as the prototypical form of consciousness, a move that automatically shunts aside such crucial aspects of mind as desire, imagination, and memory.)
The key moment comes when Manzotti puts the squeeze to Parks: “Now we have agreed, haven’t we, that experience [of seeing the apple] must be physical and hence that it must exist somewhere? Right? . . . . No invisible stuff nobody can see. . . . Agreed?” Parks agrees, he says, reluctantly. But throughout his account he honors his vow: consciousness must have a physical location. Premise acquired. Moments like these, when the charismatic person more or less demands assent, are crucial to the history of thought. The likes of a Freud, a Wittgenstein, or a Nabokov robes himself in vatic authority and has to make only few suggestive remarks to brand the minds of his disciples for decades. Recalling how the followers of G. E. Moore established their positions, John Maynard Keynes wrote: “In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility.” Manzotti, observes Parks, is “a big man who runs and works out regularly . . . so there is almost a physical as well as rhetorical coercion when he gets going.”
Having exacted this pledge of allegiance to physicalism, Manzotti asserts further that consciousness must be located in one of three places: in neural activity, in the object perceived, or in the physical processes connecting the two. Neural activity is out because, while an apple is red, rounded, cool, and so on, the corresponding neural activity has none of these qualities. We are conscious not of neural activity but of the apple. The second option, the process linking object to organism, would include not only neural activity but also rays of light and retinal activity and all the physical phenomena undergirding these. But this option fails for the same reason: the human being sees the apple and not the physical processes linking apple to neural activity. And so the process of elimination compels Manzotti toward the utterly strange conclusion that consciousness of the apple must be “in” the apple.
This argument shocks, confounds, and finally converts Parks. My consciousness of an apple is physically located in the apple that I see—bizarre, audacious, and perhaps just crazy enough to work. But this deduction still puzzles, demanding elaboration and defense. How to do so? Parks mostly makes frequent use of italicized conjugations of the verb “to be”: “[T]he experience of the Mona Lisa was the Mona Lisa as your perceptive faculties allowed it to exist when you stood before it.” “[T]he object is the experience.” “The experience was the wall of the cage and the mouse’s relation to it.” Those phrases—“as your perceptive faculties allowed it to exist at the when you stood before it” and “and the mouse’s relation to it”—might seem to smuggle back in what had earlier been kicked out: the physical process linking organism to object. But, more to the point, italics by themselves argue nothing. Truly, Parks has freighted font with more responsibility than it can possibly bear. It may be possible to convince us that two manifestly different things are really the same—but not with a mere slant to the script. The italics method reveals that we are in the realm of pure assertion. It lets slip that the true basis of physicalism lies outside of analysis or observation.
But prior to sifting the motives of physicalists, the problem of consciousness itself needs some attention. Like no other subject—not religion, not politics—the problem of consciousness lays out a lavish feast of chances to learn that your seemingly sensible acquaintance has been a secret lunatic this whole time. Nevertheless with some attention and effort we can see that the physicalist account of mind is patently wrong. Four overlapping reasons in particular should make us doubt the identity of mind and matter.
First, consciousness needs a witness, to which perceptions, memories, desires, and other mental events are referred. Implicitly, it seems that those who believe neural tissue to be mind itself imagine that this tissue forms a kind of image, as on a television screen. But, as that fanatical physicalist Francis Crick himself asked, if this is so, who’s watching the television? The proposition that the matter-energy in the brain “just looks at itself” can, of course, be mouthed but not pictured or understood. All the looking we know involves an organism, with a nervous system, in the midst of the world, but the nervous system by itself is only a part of that aggregation. To say that neural tissue by itself “perceives” would be like saying that the fretboard of guitar alone generates guitar music. It arrogates too much to one part of the whole. To compare, on the one hand, an organism looking at an object to, on the other hand, neural tissue “looking at itself” is to turn the nervous system into an organism in its own right, which in turn would need its own inner physical witness, and so on forever.
Second, mental events mingle. The mind is a unity, although a unity utterly unlike a physical structure with parts outside of each other. As St. Gregory of Nyssa put it, one perception enters through the east gate, and another enters through the west gate, but they all meet in one city. What is this dimensionless yet capacious coming together of memory, desire, imagination, and perception that makes possible the first-person experience? The brain is made of exclusive parts that interact physically. But the mind is made not out of indifferent forces but of mutual presences and coinherent meanings. Nothing in the mindless world approaches the unique quality of my mind to unify without abolishing plurality.
Third, the mind is “about” things. Energy streams into our sensory organs, propagating into the brain. But the mind seems not only to receive but to reach out in an act of prehension. When Donne wrote of lovers’ “eye-beams twisted” as they gazed at each other, he was referring to this second movement, whose “beams” of attention differ qualitatively from the physical photons entering the eye. Nothing in mindless nature is “about” anything else; there, interactions tell no tales.
Fourth, value is central to my mind. I am constantly finding things sad, fascinating, boring, annoying, beautiful, or ugly. Even if by superhuman effort I disciplined myself to find nothing either good or bad, I would still find it good that I found nothing good or bad, and so would have failed. It would be difficult to imagine a state of consciousness in which I was not making, or about to make, a judgment of value, even if that judgment were just the simple apprehension of my own boredom. Turn now to physics, which measures neither good nor bad. Physics tells us not what should be, but how things tend to go whether we like it or not. But the mind is all about whether we do like it, or not.
And these are only four of many reasons to doubt that mind is physical. One can accept the obvious—that neural tissue is somehow indispensable to the kind of waking consciousness that causes effects in my body and other physical things—without embracing the absurd—that mind and matter are the same. No glut of italics (“The neurons are your thoughts”) can abolish the differences enumerated above.
Given the absurdity of locating consciousness “in” either neural tissue or “in” the more expansive physical process linking object to organism, the Manzotti trilemma represents a brilliant physicalist innovation based on the Sherlock Holmesian principle from The Sign of the Four: “[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” To locate consciousness “in” the physical object I perceive possesses an enormous advantages over the two possibilities eliminated: most cozily, it brings me again in touch with the crocus I believe myself to be staring at, rather than requiring me to wade through a swamp of electromagnetic and electrochemical wave propagation before I arrive panting and dripping with physics at the crocus I think I see. Or does Manzotti’s theory really put me in touch with the crocus? If my consciousness of the crocus is enveloped entirely in the crocus, where am I? I’m suddenly as redundant as the God of deism. The naïve view of perception is wiser. The mysticism of common sense lets me be in touch with something I’m not; only a pseudo-rational scientism finds this daily miracle hard to countenance.
The Manzotti theory may be an artful and dilatory dodge, but in the end the main obstacle to “locating” my consciousness of a statue “in” that physical statue is that it’s manifestly wrong. Nothing could be clearer, nothing more consonant with common sense, than the effect of my body’s position and condition on my perception of the statue. Injury or distance mars my sight of it. A child knows this. When Parks and Manzotti temper their theory by allowing that the flesh mediates perception of the statute, although the perception is still “really in the statue,” when they say that perception “picks out” aspects of the statute from a wider range of possibilities, they have not shored up their position—they have abandoned it.
It should be clear by now that all the flaws of this ingeniously fatuous theory flow from its grounding in physicalism, in the notion that consciousness needs a discrete location, as though consciousness were a pit in a peach, there for the plucking. Remember that the pizza-parlor pact struck was that “there is no invisible stuff.” But if “stuff” means what we can touch and see, then belief in consciousness isn’t belief in invisible stuff; no, it means instead belief that existence embraces more than stuff alone. Stuff may be provincial, really, and our scientistic passion for it the blunder of a metaphysical hick. The notion that what we touch and see exhausts existence is simply another unproven premise reaped from socialization. But what sort of socialization?
In our technological world, all thought moves as though by magnetism toward the practical. It seems now that every kind of learning begins at the lip of a funnel that brings it all to one slender end: turning the world efficient, making better machines, making better laws, as though our world were a gigantic gadget needing constant and numberless repairs, as though implementing these repairs were the only action that could render any life meaningful. Even psychological well-being, our pathetic substitute for holiness, means above all our ability to function effectively in practical life. No other measure is even thinkable. Parks and Manzotti believe that everything, including consciousness, has a physical location because this style of thought is so useful in practical action. Captain Ahab speaks for us all now: “I like a good grip; I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man.”
Metaphor is the burning filament in the lightbulb of thought; we think in things, just as we play music on an instrument. And in our practical society, the master metaphor is that truth is solid object, bounded and stable. We like a good grip, and everything else is nonsense. Parks accepts this metaphor. And so, an unpromising train of thought is “shaky ground,” and he speculates that the self may not exist because, unlike a rock or a tree, no one can see or touch it. Throughout the book Parks (under the spell of his Svengali Manzotti) speaks of consciousness as though it were a smaller physical thing enclosed by a larger physical thing, the littlest nested Russian doll: consciousness is, they think, either “in the brain” or “in the object perceived” or “in the physical process” between the two. The preposition “in” by itself forces the conclusion that we search for something like a fork in a drawer. The words, the metaphors are so decisive, so soon! Choosing a master metaphor in philosophy is like choosing a key for a musical composition: if I want to change it midway, I have to return to the beginning and change everything else. Like a train fastened to a track, a thinker fastened to a metaphor can move in only a few ways.
The practical view of life of course isn’t false, only incomplete. Sharply bounded things surround us always, and we need to deal with them. To manipulate the world, to correlate possibilities for action, is predominantly what we mean by intelligence today. IQ tests of spatial reasoning thrust us into a world of discrete shapes with definite locations, a realm ruled by the “laws of logic”: the law of identity (that shape is identical to itself), the law of noncontradiction (that shape is not at the same time there and not there), and the law of the excluded middle (that shape is either there or not there).
But the practical logic that gives us such a firm grip on solids fails us the moment we leave solids behind. The laws of logic, as Henri Bergson told us, express the relations between exclusive bulks. Much of our life, though, isn’t exclusive bulks. When I look for the location of a melody (is it “in” each of the notes, or somehow split evenly between them, or present entirely in each part?) or the location of the meaning of a sentence (“in” the words, et patati et patata), my laws of logic no longer help me. The meaning of any sentence is “in” each word, and yet in none of them in isolation from the others: truly, every meaningful sentence does violence to the law of noncontradiction. Even to say metaphorically that meaning “hovers” between the words makes meaning into a discrete flying object—an image inadequate to the immediate and immobile harmony of linguistic meaning. Meaning and mind seem—to borrow a phrase from the great Russian philosopher Semyon Frank—“metalogical,” overflowing the bounds of logical thought while never leaving behind the insights of logic.
Anything that unfolds through time, anything that creatively prolongs the past into the future—preeminently my first-person experience—fails to give us the good grip that Ahab liked so much. (Wordsworth: “The mind of man is fashioned and built up / Even as a strain of music . . .” ) But anything meaningful seems to pierce the suffocating rubber lining that practical logic lays down between things. Meaning joins where grasping sunders. When all our thought is bent on practical action, though, we lack even the equipment to think that something could both exist and not be solid. And so many thinkers from Ancient India on have denied that the “I,” the least graspable thing we know, even exists, although this “I” is the light illuminating everything. Life in our gadget-ridden, fiddling, tinkering society makes possible for the first time in history for many apparently sane people to embrace the most preposterous idea ever sustained by a mind—that mind itself is a fable. “We only think that we think,” as C. S. Lewis put it.
If we value practical action so much, and then come to revere manipulable objects as the only truly existing things, this suggests that value itself is the alpha and omega of our thinking. Socialization is how we come to ascribe value in common, but we do so in private as well. I suspect that the unproven premises of our thought derive finally from certain experiences that make us either jump for joy or shudder, encounters that inscribe in us images of beauty and horror. At these moments of spiritual impressionability, the aperture twists and the film of our psychology receives a photon volley. We ingest these images of evaluation not only in everyday life but also through art, history, and gossip. They become the blood of our thought. Schopenhauer once illustrated this point: “In one of Voltaire’s or Diderot’s romances,—I forget the precise reference,—the hero, standing like a young Hercules at the parting of ways, can see no other representation of Virtue than his old tutor holding a snuff-box in his left hand, from which he takes a pinch and moralizes; whilst Vice appears in the shape of his mother’s chambermaid.” And life supplies many other examples: the loathsome art teacher who makes all art loathsome, the charming Italian who makes all Italy charming, the cheating businessman who makes all businessmen cheats. When Arthur Koestler was a boy, his Jewish grandfather told him: “It would be wrong for me to eat ham but it is not wrong for you. I was brought up in prejudice.” That novel word prejudice went like signet ring into the warm wax of his mind and for years he considered all religion exactly that. When I gaze back at my years of atheism, I feel shocked to see the seeds of godlessness planted by the sight my grandfather, once a dignified and dapper man, smothered in the kudzu of Alzheimer’s, the only remaining sign of his education being a poem by Esenin, which he recited whenever possible. All else went dark, choked, childish. So that’s it, I thought. The mind is only a pattern of molecules. Smash the pattern, smash the soul. Of course I thought nothing like this explicitly. The impressions feeding intuition gestate beneath the level of articulate language. But this image, this icon, imprisoned me in the belief that mind was a kind of steam rising from the surface of mindless matter-energy. Reading contemptible pop science journalism only corroborated what life experience had already proved to me. It would take years, and other experiences, to break the spell.
To recapitulate: the farther we stray from the world of graspable solids and into the music of metaphysics, the more decisive become our metaphors and intuitions. And if these in turn spring from signal life experiences, we arrive at the following surprising conclusion: as philosophy approaches its pure state of metaphysics, the layer separating philosophy from memoir turns increasingly porous. This is how a narrative of private emotion can carry a metaphysical brilliance denied to systematic argument. This is how a four-line poem can weigh more than fifty pounds of scholarship. But should we be so surprised by the kinship of metaphysics and autobiography? Lev Shestov detected in Plato’s dialogues nothing else but this: a man coping with the sight of his innocent teacher Socrates judicially murdered, and his mounting refusal to ascribe too much reality to a world that could encompass this horror. Like Don Quixote, Plato simply refused to live in a world so bad and boring. With Socrates dead, Plato found the world a dark cave and was determined to climb out. We could call these the ravings of a troubled old man, but Whitehead in turn called Western philosophy nothing but a series of footnotes to Plato.
Parks, who has introspected publicly for years, bears out this link between memoir and metaphysics. In an excellent fictional story published in 2014 in The New Yorker, he relates the struggles of the teenage “Thomas,” whose pastor father has embraced a charismatic Christianity, including the dreaded glossolalia. His father attempts an apparently ludicrous exorcism of Thomas’s atheist brother. Years later, Thomas detects glimmers of doubt in his father, and now reads in his father’s enthusiasms a bid to blot those doubts away. Pulling embarrassing stunts to shore up what one knows is a sham deep down: to see this in your father would be devastating without a doubt. “The most memorable development that had to do with his father,” the story goes, “the most decisive watershed, was the Charismatic Movement.” For the protagonist, fleeing from this freewheeling “charisma” toward what you can see and grip seems liberating, laudable, and natural. Parks, by the way, is the son of an English clergyman. “At fourteen,” wrote Parks in his earlier Teach Us to Sit Still, “fidgeting on my pew, it came to me that the person [my father] most needed to convince was himself. That was the day I stopped believing.” When, during a Buddhist meditation retreat he attends as an adult, an instructor reads St. Paul’s “Hymn to Love,” Parks is thrown nearly into a panic and incipient tears. His experiences permit his thoughts to wander only so far.
But are we the helpless prisoners of our experiences? The whole purpose of thought may be instead to help us break free from our petty biographies; depending on where we start from, the journey can be short or very long, full of horrible struggles. But I sense this ability to smash conceptual prisons has atrophied in the modern world: all our thought is now bent on the how at the expense of the why. With means we feel limber; with ends, paralytic.
Something about physicalists’ pigheaded refusal to credit anything beyond the physical is strangely wise: it shows an implicit recognition that anything beyond the physical would be what we once knew as the supernatural. A breach like that would break the vacuum seal of the secular forever. Then the simplest glance at an apple would be big with divinity. Needing at all costs to skirt this disaster, the physicalists tolerate their primitive philosophies of mind, the way a developing nation tolerates its infant auto industry—nervously giving it time to grow, subsidizing it with charity to a fault. It may not make much sense to say that consciousness, the medium of value, springs from a physical world entirely indifferent to good or bad. But the stakes for the atheist are simply too high to prioritize making sense: there’s a war on.
Belief in God, in its most modest form, is simply the recognition that mind and the values of mind are integral to existence itself. This was the intuition of most thinking people until very late in our history. It’s taking and will take many generations for the educated to grasp that “the death of God,” marketed fraudulently as a modest appendectomy in the mind, entails in fact the extinguishment of the mind entirely.